There are people who will tell you they cannot be doing with opera. They may perhaps suggest that it is unrealistic for people to sing about their emotions, or that it makes no sense that having been stabbed the heroine spend five minutes singing mournfully of her imminent death. I have never been one of those people. Yet there are times when I seem to have had a particularly lengthy run of serviceable, or indeed far from serviceable, evenings at the opera such that even I begin to wonder whether the magic has gone. And then you see a show like this and you remember that this is what great opera is like.
The programme book will tell you that this is the 6th revival of David McVicar's production, but I was seeing it for the first time, and frankly if I hadn't read the programme or reviews I doubt that I would have been aware this production had been around since 2001. It is fresh and sharp. I suspect one of the reasons for this is that it is not a production in constant conflict with the music (unlike so many others I could name). The set consists of a great sloping shiny wall, which forms the backdrop to the Duke's court (signaled by a suitably baroque chair) and from within which is formed the shabby, shadowy houses of Rigoletto and Sparafucile. It's quite simple, and very effective. Within this world McVicar (sustained by revival director Leah Hausman) creates a series of effective images: the sickening debauchery of the Duke's court, that court surrounding the desperate jester, the grim haunt of the assassin, and the final tragic tableau. I mention Leah Hausman incidentally, because this is an object lesson in revival directing (in notable contrast to the far less slick management of The Makropulos Case at the Coliseum a couple of weeks ago).
The design and direction then give this revival a good basis for success; when you add to that a pretty uniformly excellent cast and a conductor who knows what he is doing you clinch it. At the centre of the experience is Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Rigoletto. I am not completely convinced by McVicar's hampering him with a pair of crutches, but once you get used to the idea, Hvorostovsky increasingly rises beyond them. His singing is impressive throughout but what gives it the emotional power is the range, from mocking jester, to loving then tragic father. It's a great operatic performance.
Next to him it has to be acknowledged that neither Patrizia Ciofi as Gilda or Wookyung Kim as the Duke are wholly free from problems. Kim's voice is not quite powerful enough for the part, and Ciofi's tuning is sometimes a little wayward. But in the more lyrical moments Kim is fine, and Ciofi carried me over her occasional infelicities by virtue of her compelling acting performance (and in fairness some equally dramatically compelling singing). You believe in the range of emotions each of them has to convey, and how often can that be said about operatic performances.
Also worthy of mention is some fine, menacing singing from Raymond Aceto as Sparafucile, nicely partnered with Daniela Innamorati as his sister, Maddalena. Only one singer is slightly below ideal, and that unfortunately is Michael Druiett as Monterone. I suspect this is a really difficult role to cast because no singer in his prime is going to want to spend weeks appearing in a part where he really only has one good number, but the moment of the curse is so pivotal it cries out for a powerful voice that can boom menacingly over the orchestra and bring the opening scene to a really fiery conclusion. It wasn't that Druiett was poor, but one just wanted a voice with a gear or two more to it.
The other major contributor to the success of the evening is conductor Dan Ettinger, making his Royal Opera debut. After a slightly hesitant start from the brass, he drew increasingly powerful and exciting playing from the orchestra. This is a man who has both a sense of drama, and it seemed to me an intimate understanding of this score. Any half decent conductor can do a solid job on La donna e mobile; it takes artistry to guide a quartet (like that just prior to the murder scene between Sparafucile, Maddalena, Gilda and Rigoletto) so that you feel you are listening to four characters express themselves at the same time, to get four singers to mesh with each other so that every line, every little jangling match up comes across. It was wonderfully done.
This is an object lesson in how to revive a production, of which the Coliseum could usefully take note. If you haven't seen this production before grab a ticket if there are any left, and even if you have I suggest this is one which is absolutely worth the price second (or in fact sixth) time round.
Postscript: A small housekeeping note – It says a great deal for the brilliance on stage and in the pit that I just about managed to ignore the hacking cougher somewhere to my left in the amphitheatre. My esteemed brother may appreciate how hacking this was when I say that it almost rivalled the legendary audience noise during the Metropolitan Opera Tosca [Which prompted a member of the audience, driven to distraction, to call out "It helps if you put your hand over your mouth!" - Ed]. Is it too much to ask that people might provide themselves with the odd cough sweet? Perhaps the House should keep a stock behind the bar!